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Does Book Art Have to Resemble a Book?

An Art Magazine for the Rest of Us

Stephanie Cristello

No, it’s not just you. First-time interactions with Book Arts can be a strange encounter; the first thing we ask ourselves is how on earth this can be considered a book.

The answer I’ve always gone to is: “It’s a book because the artist says it is”- But that answer seems too easy; I feel like I’m being tricked. These objects are carved, warped, twisted and turned, set on fire, you name it- some are just downright unreadable. So where do we stand when we’re faced with these things?

As an artist myself, I’ve been exposed to Artist’s Books for quite some time. This conversation, of what constitutes a book, is one that gets tossed around between artists pretty frequently. This roundup consists of two artists that work more sculpturally within the realm of Book Arts. So here are three things you need to know about the medium and its role in the third dimension:

Does Book Art have to resemble a book?

“A piece could be considered book art or an artist’s book because the form resembles a book, or it could just be because of chosen materials or an approach or process,” begins Chicago-born artist Brian Dettmer. “I don’t think a book ever stops being a book just as wood never stops being wood, no matter how much it is manipulated.” And if you look at Dettmer’s work, you’ll see why. His sculptural approach to Book Arts is strikingly evocative and autonomous, as all of his works are- or were- a book when the piece was originally conceived.

Brian Dettmer

Through an intensely physical process, Dettmer challenges our conceptions of a book- especially when faced with the larger scope of 3-Dimensional art. “Yes, altering a book can remove it from its original form. At what point? Well, it all depends on the piece- It’s hard to define the moment or movement when it takes place exactly. . . The more I manipulate it, the further it goes from the form of a book- but it still maintains the density, materiality and richness of information, images and text, which I think is the true “book-ness” of a book,” he explains.

How do you define a book?

Melissa Jay Craig, another prevalent Chicago artist who works with books in a more installation-based way, had this to say: “If it makes me think of a book, if it recalls my consciousness to the book in some manner, either intellectually or viscerally (or ideally, both), I am more than satisfied to call it a book.”

Melissa Jay Craig

In this way, Craig works with the creation of environment; her work is relative to the viewer, as she uses scale to implement a concept of book-ness, “Choosing to open a book is essentially similar to voluntarily entering a space; you move through both and view what is presented, and you assemble its contents into the meaning you interpret from the information you absorb.”

Equating the elemental environment as a filter in which to view the concept of reading a book raises questions within the genre of Book Arts itself, especially when it comes to looking at readability and the artist’s role in authorship.

Does it have to be readable?

“Readability becomes lost in my work, or shifted, or limited to what I decide to keep and expose. I love to expose fragmented texts in a new environment. The meaning shifts or opens to the viewer in a poetic way,” muses Dettmer.

Brian Dettmer

For most artists, readability is more of a sensory reaction that naturally occurs when interacting with the piece; it becomes a sort of unavoidable intuition that all artists have to consider- the relationship between the piece and the audience. For Book Arts, in particular, readability is more of a personal choice, and can in many ways influence the content the more it is emphasized or omitted.

Having worked with Marilyn Sward, co-founder and director of the Paper Press, a non-profit organization that eventually combined under Columbia College to become the Center for Book and Paper Arts, Craig’s work with paper originated from the idea of translation. “My interest initially sprang from suddenly learning that I am nearly deaf. For many years, I believed I was hearing when in fact, I had learned to read lips,” says Craig. “Readability, or rather the understanding of what reading may be, is a fundamental area of inquiry for me. I’m intrigued by our sensory intelligences, particularly by the multiple unconscious readings we are constantly engaged in, our ingrained abilities that are so often denigrated as being ‘merely’ intuitive.”

Melissa Jay Craig

Perhaps the most interesting approach to Book Arts as a three dimensional artwork is its ability to relay the viewer from the medium to its message, and the way the meaning is constantly being reverberated through its materiality. Or maybe it’s an inlaid intimacy subverted within these sculptural forms that catch us off guard and lure us in. Either way, its siren song is captivating. It is a refreshing take on the relationship that can, and should, be built between the creation and its audience, the artist and the viewer. Sentimentality and great authority: this is reading in the third dimension.